Fergus Henderson reflects on a brace of shaky forays in hospitality - grand designs but sadly short and sweet.
It's not many restaurant endeavours that can cite the bombing of the Prime Minister's motorcade, Israeli air raids and invasion as reasons for failing to get off the ground. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back in time a few months before it all went pear-shaped. I went to a wedding in Beirut where I met a lady who knew and liked my restaurants in London. She went on to suggest we open one there. In fact, she had the perfect spot - a wee palace, no less. It was fantastic, set in a garden shaded by trees. You walked into a stained-glass lobby, then into the main hall, which was in the Arabic style. Off this space were rooms; one that particularly sticks in my mind looked like a library from a baronial castle. I instantly had fantasies of me in a white dinner jacket like Rick in Casablanca, sitting in a corner drinking little glasses of something strong and wonderful.
It all seemed so perfect. For the menu we would simply shift the St John emphasis from pig to lamb - they have a fantastic breed in the Middle East with plump, round tails that you can render down to produce a very pure fat, which you can then use to confit the meat. They are no strangers to nose-to-tail eating, our Beiruti friends - stuffed lamb's intestine, lamb's trotters, the brain and the tongue. Have you ever tried green chickpeas - the fresh ones, before they're dried? And the fruit is ripe!
As for wine, everything is available there, but we would have celebrated wines from Lebanon. We went to see Château Musar and got harangued by one of the brothers, but it was worth it. We descended deeper into the cellar, tasting older and older wines. He went on somewhat, and insisted that we had to keep changing rooms when tasting the wine, the thinking being that moving rooms made us take the memory of the previous room with us to experience the wine afresh in a new place. I'm not sure I'm convinced.
We got far enough into the project that we even started to look at staff costs, which I'm ashamed to say seemed amazingly low. But it wasn't the air raids or invasions that put paid to this plan in the end (we even checked with the embassy who said that all would be fine - slightly worrying, looking back). It was the five glamorous sisters who owned the place being wooed by a developer to build a block of flats on the site instead. Sigh. On some level it might have been rather appropriate to my white-tux dreams to have been opening the place in a war zone.
Closer to home we built a small hotel in London's Chinatown. This we really did manage to get up and running, even though the odds turned out against us. The streets were being dug up when we finally opened, we had builders on site for a year longer than planned and the Olympics made London a ghost town. Sadly she was not alive for long but in her short life she shone like a beacon of hope and joy. The St John Hotel was a place that expressed its being as a hotel, but also stayed within the scale of its ambitions: a small hotel with grand ideas.
The restaurant was splendid: the chefs were cooking with real zeal, curing their own pig-cheek ham, wonderfully drying pig skin which they then fried and served with cod's roe, along with a fine selection of savouries. The rooms were an antidote to the horror of most hotel rooms, and I quickly picked up a taste for the hotelier lifestyle. The day always starts with a good breakfast, and if you have a moment of weariness you can retire to a room. If the rooms happen to all be full, on the other hand, that news also comes as music to your ears. Fate obviously decided I was having too good a time.
On a bonny note, I should count myself lucky that these two are my only ventures that ended unsatisfactorily. Wounds licked, I'm ready to embark on a new mission, though where I'm not quite sure. The great writer and illustrator Ludwig Bemelmans was a proud advocate of being an inn owner: always a maid to hand, a driver, a chef, of course, and a wine cellar at your disposal. I'm with you all the way, Ludwig. I will miss the succour we could have offered Beirut, but my taste of hotel life in London was sweet while it lasted. Let's see what tomorrow will bring.
Illustration Lara Porter